Sara Ibrahim continues to look for the proteins of the future. This time, the SWI journalist tried insects. Considered a complete, sustainable and inexpensive source of protein in many African and Asian countries, these small animals struggle to find their way onto consumer plates. Switzerland was the first country in Europe to approve them for human consumption.
This content was posted on 27. August 2022 – 11:00
Anyone who becomes a vegetarian like me is obsessed, at first, with minimal protein consumption. Proteins, along with the glucose in carbohydrates, helped accelerate the evolution of the human brain, making our species the smartest on the planet. Therefore, they are indispensable for a healthy diet: our body uses the amino acids that compose them to build and repair muscles and bones.
In Europe, the sources of protein are numerous, so that it is even difficult to choose. However, the excessive consumption of meat and dairy products – as I explained in previous episodes of this series – harms the environment, being the third biggest cause of emission of greenhouse gases.
On the other hand, in other places, such as on the African continent, proteins may even be inaccessible to many people. For this reason, we seek sustainable sources of protein.
I was impressed by the storyexternal link from entrepreneur Esnath Divasoni, who fights malnutrition in her village in Zimbabwe by raising edible insects. The crickets raised by this agronomist provide high-quality protein to her community. Her example was later followed by other women in the region.
According to a studyexternal link of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), insects could help eradicate world hunger and lessen the dependence of the world’s growing population on intensive livestock farming.
Although this food is foreign to Western culinary culture, up to two billion people around the world consume insects. Therefore, there are those who believe that one day they will enter our daily diet. But Switzerland has a long way to go to get there.
insects as food
Insects are very nutritious, low in fat and contain all the essential amino acids. They also contain fiber – which meat lacks – and vitamin B12, which is not naturally present in plant foods.
Researchesexternal link carried out by Diego Moretti at the Federal Polytechnic School of Zurich (ETH) show that insects are an acceptable source of iron, although less optimized than meat.
“They’re more like plant-based products,” says Moretti. But insect proteins are more digestible than legume proteins, for example. And more complete in terms of its amino acid profile, explains the expert in human nutrition at the Swiss Federal University of Applied Sciences (FFHS).
Speaking of aesthetics, insects are no uglier than shrimp and snails. They also emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than cattle and are easy to breed. I saw this with my own eyes in Switzerland, the first country in Europe to authorize in 2017 three types of insects – crickets, grasshoppers and larvae – for human consumption.
Just set up a small room with plastic crates (similar to supermarket fruit crates) and fill them with a substrate of grains and powdered seeds. “Insects need little food and space, water and energy,” Benjamin Steiner, a veterinarian and flour moth breeder, told me.
Crickets, for example, need twelve times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep and half as much as pigs and chickens to produce the same amount of protein, an FAO study shows.external link of 2013.
In 2018, Steiner founded the company Ensectable on the family farm near Endingen, a village in canton Aargau. There are no large stables or hundreds of hectares of land, animals huddled together, nauseating smells and hay everywhere: the farm consists of three small rooms, where insects mate and larvae grow, before Steiner and his only servant collect them.
Steiner seems to have a sort of admiration for his insects. He talks about his qualities with a smile on his face. “Meal moths are fantastic animals. When they don’t have anything to eat, they just wait for the situation to improve.”
Flour moths need heat to grow: the ideal temperature, which Steiner can conveniently control from a distance, is between 25 and 27 °C. When it gets colder, however, the larvae eat less and their metabolism slows down. “If I want to take a vacation, all I have to do is lower the temperature and the larvae stay quiet until they come back,” he says, adding that this is a luxury that normal farmers cannot afford.
The most delicate moment is harvesting, as the larvae have to be removed before they turn into pupae, the stage that precedes the adult stage. This happens after about ten weeks. After that, they are passed through a machine that separates them from the floury substrate, cooked in boiling water and frozen at -20 °C.
These steps must be carried out by law to ensure that all larvae are dead and do not contain pathogens. “But in theory, that wouldn’t be necessary, as the bacteria that insects have in their gut are not harmful to humans.”
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Insects on the market
Steiner produces approximately 200 kilograms of insects a month, a modest amount. Its main customer is Swiss company Essento, which sells a 170-gram packet of moth burgers for CHF6.95, a higher price than most plant-based and meat-based burgers.
Of course, insects are not a vegetarian food, and neither do they necessarily satisfy the carnivore consumer, at least in Europe. But Essento founder Christian Bärtsch believes in the future of this new type of food.
The young entrepreneur with an American accent is trained as an economist and nurtures a passion for food. He says with conviction that the best diet does not exclude animal protein and that insects are the link between plant and carnivorous diets.
“Who am I to say that a food should be completely eradicated? It is proven that a healthy diet consists of different sources of protein”, reinforces Bärtsch. “We can provide a sustainable, high-quality alternative that can be easily integrated into the diet.”
His Zurich-based company has been selling bug snacks, energy bars and hamburgers in Swiss, German and Austrian shops and restaurants since 2017. Bärtsch also helped found Ensectable so it could follow the entire production chain.
The truth, however, is that most consumers can’t imagine spearing an insect with a fork and putting it in their mouths. a market researchexternal link showed that 9% of the population approves of eating insects. But Bärtsch is convinced: “It’s all in the head.”
I also thought about that when I opened the little insect snack I bought at the supermarket. And it wasn’t easy to find them on the shelf. Even the shop assistant was intrigued when I asked her about edible insects. She laughed nervously, as if she’d been the victim of a candid camera. “Are you looking for bugs to eat?”
When he realized I was serious, he went to talk to the manager. He said he would only find a limited selection of snacks and bars, but the flour moth burgers went out of stock due to a lack of consumer interest. In total I paid 17.50 francs for three 15-gram packets of crickets and grasshoppers in various flavors and two energy bars of 35 grams each.
I thought of the FAO report and the Divasoni story and wondered how world hunger could be eradicated at these prices. Insect production processes are becoming more efficient and prices are falling, according to Bärtsch. “It will take time to catch up to the meat industry levels, but we are making progress,” he told me on the phone a few months ago.
After this tour, I decided to try a “Thai” cricket from Essento, inviting my husband to participate in the culinary experience. The appearance wasn’t so terrible. They are “crunchy” like salt crackers.
The insect’s flavor was fully covered by a long list of spices and natural sugars. When I switch to alpine locusts, the ingredients change too, but the words “remove hind legs before consuming” make me sick to my stomach.
I pluck up courage and open the package, but the large locusts staring at me with red eyes make me cringe. “You’ve eaten other weird things,” I said to myself, remembering the worst-looking foods I’d ever tasted before going vegan: tripe, tongues, the brains of various animals, and fried frogs.
In my mouth, I feel the grasshopper’s wings beating against the roof of my mouth. I try to focus on protein and sensation while my husband looks at me with a laugh. He is unimpressed with insects: he puts a handful in his mouth and swallows them without thinking too much. Energy bars, on the other hand, are really tasty: the crickets are ground to a powder and there is no added sugar.
At the end of the experience I begin to think that this habit will still take time to reach Europe. But thinking about the potato story, I see a light at the end of the tunnel: in the 1500s many people found the potato repulsive and preferred to feed it to pigs.
“My grandfather’s generation would never have eaten pizza or sushi. It takes a long time to convince consumers,” says Moretti. Somehow, I feel excited. But the bugs are still in the home pantry.
Adaptation: Alexander Thoele
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